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Learning to Manage


All too often supervisors ascend to their role from the front lines without any real experience managing others.

Local training programs can help.

Story by Lee Marie Reinsch 

Experienced managers know how to identify bad ideas… Bad ideas come from other people. Now, go work smarter, not harder.

 – Pointy-haired Boss in “Dilbert” by Scott Adams

“Meet our new vice-president of engineering. We’re delighted to have him, despite his utter lack of experience in our industry. Some might call him unqualified, but I call him exotic.”

– Pointy-haired Boss in “Dilbert”

Imagine that you’re in a room, and the door is closed and you don’t know where the light switch is.

That’s how nurse Peggy McArdle felt in 2006 when she got promoted to a managerial position with Agnesian HealthCare in Fond du Lac.

“It’s a feeling like none other – like you know it’s there, you know you can do it, you know you can find it, but you just got to get there,” said McArdle, Agnesian’s staff and organizational development director.

Twenty years of working as an emergency room nurse and staff nurse prepped her for many things. Heading a department wasn’t among them.

“I was able to make snap decisions, I decided who needed what care and when, and I decided criticality of patients,” McArdle said. “This was something really different – it involved looking at things long term (instead of minute by minute) and a lot of different variables than I had run into as a charge nurse.”

Then Agnesian sent her to the Supervisory Skills Series program held through the Fond du Lac Area Association of Commerce.

The 13-month employer-sponsored program meets monthly and encourages new managers to put lessons into real-life practice the rest of the month.

Once McArdle got into the supervisory series, light began to crack through the bottom of the door.

“I had the light switch on, and I began to feel a little more comfortable with what I was doing,” McArdle said.

Out of the frying pan and into the fire

McArdle is far from the first to arrive at a new job with no experience.

“Even at the managerial, director and executive level, a lot of these organizations are struggling with the concept of leadership,” said Ken Hostetler, instructor with Northeast Wisconsin Technical College’s Leadership Academy and Leadership Series.

Many managers are people who once excelled at non-leadership jobs but were poached from the front lines.

“Just because you’re good at something doesn’t mean you’re going to be a good leader or manager,” said Dean Stewart, NWTC’s dean of corporate training and economic development.

The worst thing a boss can do is to promote an employee based solely on technical skills, Stewart said.

“You run the risk of hurting yourself in two ways. Say you promote your best forklift driver to be manager and he’s a bad manager. You end up losing your best forklift driver… and you end up with a bad manager,” he said.

Oftentimes, the very technical skills and task focus that made an employee stand out as a front-end worker supersede the interpersonal skills that would have helped him or her be more effective as a leader, according to Stewart.

Along with attitude and efficiency, leaders need to communicate well, Stewart said. “Not only peer-to-peer but peer-to-leader and peer-to-employee.”

That means communication via writing, speech, email or phone, as well as between generations, Stewart said.

Help is on the way

NWTC’s Leadership Academy mostly targets new leaders in the manufacturing industry.

“These organizations have said we’re going to invest in these people to give them the right skills so that when we do promote them… they’re getting a good base of knowledge underneath them,” Stewart said.

The six-session program combines online with in-person learning and provides mentorship and help tailored to a student’s employer.

NWTC’s Leadership Series follows the Academy and probes topics of management more in-depth. It covers a broader reach than manufacturing, according to Hostetler.

Talk therapy

“Alice, I need you to be less productive. I’ll get an automatic promotion if I can justify hiring one more direct report.”

– Pointy-haired Boss in “Dilbert”

If you’ve ever had a less-than-eloquent supervisor (or been one yourself), you’ve probably experienced their lovely effect on morale.

Over time such managers lose effectiveness because they don’t get buy-in from employees, NWTC’s Dean Stewart said.

“Communication and collaboration with your peers and getting input before making decisions is incredibly important, and that’s really one of the things we try and teach (through) critical thinking and problem solving,” Stewart said.

Dave Podeszwa, implementer of the Supervisory Skills Series in Fond du Lac, isn’t offering a compliment when he calls that leadership style the ‘heroic’ style.

It’s the kind of leader who says, “I’m the boss, I’m in charge; if you’ve got an issue, if you’ve got a concern, you come to me – I make allllll the decisions,” Podeszwa said. “That kind of leadership drives people crazy these days. You aren’t going to work for that kind of person that long.”

Lousy supervisors cost companies money, especially when they’re driving people out.

Then you’ve got to search for replacements and embark on all the interview hassles. “You’ve got to hope you choose the right person; then when they join the organization, you’ve got to get them on-boarded correctly because they’re not going to know all they need to know,” Podeszwa said.

Time is money; it can take months and years to get a new hire up to speed.

“Then suppose you’ve invested a year or two into a new employee and you’ve got this autocratic, old-style of manager sitting there,” Podeszwa said. “All of a sudden, they (the new employee) realizes ‘Hey, I don’t like this supervisor. I’m going to start looking for a supervisor I like, be it internally or externally to some other organization.”

Boss, not bossy

McArdle found communication to be among the hardest things about her transition, even though she’d had people-experience aplenty as a nurse.

“The whole dynamic of how you interact with people (as a manager) changes,” McArdle said. “Now I wasn’t a peer; I was the boss. So you have to look at how you communicate.”

“You are under a lot more scrutiny to say and do the right things,” Stewart said.

Both the Supervisory Skills Series and NWTC’s programs delve into peer leadership, interpersonal skills and conflict resolution.

Supervisory Skills takes it a few steps further by categorizing people into four social personality styles.

“We help you identify who you are dealing with, especially your boss,” Podeszwa said. “If you’re analytical and I’m expressive, I don’t like a lot of details and you do, you can lower the relationship tensions in the work world” with this method of categorizing, which comes from Tracom Group’s Social Style protocol.

Participants survey coworkers and themselves about their own personalities to see how aligned they are with people’s perceptions of them.

According to Podeszwa and Social Style:

  • Analytic people love details and examining problems from all angles.
  • Drivers are driven to profit and bottom line, quick decisions – the fast-track, fast-paced kind of people.
  • Amiables find relationships to be most important, and try to get along with everyone.
  • Expressives express themselves, oftentimes before thinking, Podeszwa said. “Those are the dreamers and the great brainstormers we need when we get into meetings.”

Now when Kristine Louden meets someone new in her job at Grande Cheese in Fond du Lac, she can categorize them within 30 seconds and adjust her behavior for a more harmonious interaction.

She took Podeszwa’s program in 2011-12 as a scientist aspiring to move into more people-oriented work. She found a position as a quality manager within six months.

“The transition going from scientist to manager has been so smooth,” she said.

The Social Styles philosophy can even help prevent conflict.

“If somebody says something to me that maybe I could take as a personal attack, I can think ‘Oh no, no, they’re a ‘Driver,’ they’re not attacking me, that’s just the way they are,’” Louden said.

It’s not meant to excuse rudeness, but rather help interpret people’s individuality.

“It helps you understand why they react the way they do and how you can adapt, because you are powerful at that point,” Louden said. “You can understand people better.”

Knowing when to ease the reins

In many ways, being a manager means loosening rather than tightening one’s grip on things.

“We talk about what’s it like to let go of some of your own personal technologies and what got you where you are, (and) to now have to deal with… getting work done through others,” Podeszwa said.

Team input is important, Stewart said.

“To me, the best ideas come from the people that are actually doing the work. If you want to improve a process – if you want to make an important decision – you need input,” Stewart said. “It’s hard to make decisions when you’re in a vacuum. When you involve those that you lead, and they feel like they have a vested interest in and the ability to influence decision-making, I think you’ll get a stronger team as a result.”

That was the takeaway message for Louden, too.

“I learned a lot about brainstorming and the power of the team,” Louden said. “Coming up with solutions together was so powerful – rather than just sitting in your office and coming up with your own solutions.”

Collaboration and communication also figure prominently into other leadership skills, including negotiation and conflict management.

At the end of the day, there’s a difference between manager and leader, according to Stewart: “A leader is someone people want to follow because of the way they communicate, the image they project, and the example they set. A manager just tells people what to do.”

Lee Marie Reinsch writes and edits from Green Bay.